Jesus needed some downtime, some time away when he didn't have to fix all of the world's problems. Some time to be alone, walk on the beach, contemplate his naval and read a good scroll. Jesus was on vacation.
While Jesus was walking the streets, admiring how relatively calm it was in comparison to towns near the Sea of Galilee, a woman recognized him. The writer of the Gospel of Mark calls her a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician.
The woman was a half-breed. She had darker skin than Jesus and his bunch. She probably spoke a little bit funny. She was what people called a Canaanite. All of the proud native nations of the Holy Lands are called Canaanites by the writers of the Bible. It’s a way of erasing history and identity that conquering armies are prone to do. It’s what the European settlers did to the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Algonquin and the Ojibway. They called them all Indians. They called the Bantus, the Zulus, the Swahili all Negroes. It’s like calling the 135 ethnicities in Burma Burmese, erasing the proud heritage of the Karen, the Chin, the Kachin, the Kareni and the Lisu. It’s like lumping all sexual minorities from the dykes on bikes to the leather folk, to the monogamous family, to the questioning community, the flamboyant to the conservative under the rubric of the “Gay lifestyle.” All of these categories become caricatures and they represent a narrow understanding of their experience. We know that in the abundance of God, life is much more complex than our little boxes.
The last powerful Canaanite woman in the Bible was married to a King of Israel by the name of Ahab. Her name was Jezebel, a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Canaanite who used her influence to worship Canaanite gods alongside the God of Israel in the Temple. This sister of Jezebel, this unnamed Canaanite woman dared to talk to Jesus. But not only that, she dared to talk to Jesus while he was on vacation, while he was tired and while he was fed up.
As it turns out, this woman was also a mother with a child who was tormented by a demon. Back in those days, being tormented by a demon was another way of saying, her daughter was either physically or mentally ill. Those of us who are parents know the utter powerlessness that engulfs us when we can’t heal the disease gripping our own offspring. We’ll do anything to help our child. Such is the nature of parenthood. This woman was probably at her wit's end and she had heard she could count on Jesus. She fell at his feet and asked him to heal her daughter.
But when this half-breed Canaanite woman, another race and another gender than Jesus asked him, “help my little daughter”, do you know what he said? He said “no!” But not just “no!” He went on to add, “I have no responsibility, no obligation, no time for you. You’re not one of us. What! Should I take the children’s food and give it to the dogs?” He called the woman who asked for healing, a dog—a female dog.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus encounters this woman right after telling the scribes and the Pharisees that dietary laws don’t matter so much. What really matters is what comes out of our mouths. What matters is what we say. What matters is if we are loving and compassionate. And then as if to tell us that we all make mistakes, even God, Jesus goes out and defiles himself by his own words. Luckily the woman caught him on it.
I know we like to think, as Paul says, that Jesus was "without sin." God knows there are plenty of theologies around which say that Jesus was perfect and never made a mistake in his life. But to say that elevates Jesus the man to a higher and more unattainable plane where he is just too far away for many of us.
Try to imagine that Jesus took on the sins of the world including the sins of prejudice and downright meanness. Imagine God became human in Jesus, a first century Jewish person who had been taught by his culture and the media of his day who to love and who to hate. Imagine for a moment that it was this Gentile woman who was placed in Jesus' life to make him repent of his old prejudices. Maybe she was there to redeem him.
Jesus the man fed up and on vacation, mouth still dripping with the vile exclusivist rhetoric reserved for the undeserving heathen, had just insulted a mother who was not going to give up. But this was a woman who knew where her power came from. This woman was a mother with a sick child and nothing to lose. No so-called holy man would disrespect her and get away with it.
She answered Jesus' put-down with the greatest comeback to Jesus in the New Testament. (Jesus always had a great comeback for everyone else, now he had a taste of his own medicine.) "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the master's table."
She got him. Don’t you love her for saying it? I do! Jesus was exhausted, irritable, out in the country where he thought he could be anonymous. She imposed herself on him, and he shot back with the old, exclusivist Hebrew doctrine, wrapped around a stinking racist and sexist prejudice. He rejected her as a Gentile bitch. And she called him on it.
And right there, I like to think that Jesus realized what he had done. Matthew or Mark would never say it, but I like to think that on behalf of centuries of racism, sexism, prejudice and discrimination Jesus said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so mean to you. Of course your daughter has been healed." And this strong, persistent, faithful mother from another country with a hated heritage was the only person in the whole Bible to win an argument with Jesus. I would even venture to say that she redeemed Jesus. From here on in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus sees his mission as open to the Gentiles, not just the Jews.
Because she called him on it, I like to think that Jesus realized the mistake he had made. I like to think that Jesus repented of his classism, his racism and his sexism. And from there on out, the ministry of the Gospel went to the Gentiles and not just to the Jews. All because of the chutzpah of the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose name was lost to history, but whose story is woven into our story as a people.
We need to be reminded that inclusivity is not only the welcoming and affirming of others, but also an ongoing process of unlearning the toxic prejudices that we retreat to when the going gets tough. It’s so much easier to categorize people and judge them without knowing them. We are prone to exclude people we don't understand, or whom we have been told are our enemies. We can do that with fundamentalists, with homophobes, with folks who don’t vote like we do.
In this day and age, we are faced with so many opportunities to disassociate ourselves with those whom our society, our nationalities, our families and even our religion deem as outsiders. But we follow the one who has been there. The one who has said the exclusive and hurtful words and then repented. We too must do the same.
And by the grace of God, we can. We can because we follow one who has become human: the one who knows our human pain, our human joys, our human potential and also our human limitations.
And through the wonderful miracle of incarnation, God has redeemed us and showed us a better way, today through the persistent faith of a foreign mother.
It’s no accident that this story of Jesus’ own repentance is sandwiched between Jesus’ talk and action around defilement. It’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you. And the seventh chapter of Mark ends with Jesus taking spit out of his formerly defiled mouth and using it as a tool in a mutant’s transformation. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman, what came out of Jesus’ mouth no longer defiled another, but it brought healing.
That’s what should happen with everything that comes out of our mouths, too.
We are called to be at one with the human family. We are called to break down the barriers that divide us. Each Sunday we affirm that there is no slave nor free, no male nor female no Jew nor Gentile for we are all one in the redemptive power of God.
Today on this World Communion Sunday, we remember that the majority of the world does not experience the material abundance that we do. We break bread together to remember that we are connected with a larger body of Christ. We celebrate this meal today in two languages, in English and in the Lisu language of a growing community of refugees who are worshipping with us. If we don’t learn anything else from today’s Scripture, we ought to learn that people different than ourselves can hold up a mirror. That’s what the Syro-Phoenician woman did. She held up a mirror to Jesus and encouraged him to look closely at himself. When he did, he realized how he cold more fully be the child of God he knew he was. And because of her redemptive act, Jesus looked at gentiles and himself in a new way. And his actions followed suit. When we see the face of God in the one who holds the mirror and in the reflection, then we have gone far in being the redemptive community to which God has called us. Thanks be to God who holds a mirror and invites us into the audacious opportunity of redemption.